Is It Time to Move On?

By eweek  |  Posted 2002-11-25

Is It Time to Move On?

Tim ONeal didnt expect the end of his 30-year IT career to be signaled by a glossy, full-page advertisement. But earlier this year, when ONeal saw a Sun Microsystems Inc. ad poking fun at IBM for using Sun equipment in-house, he knew it was the beginning of the end. Within weeks, he said, ONeals Unix development group—which had supported Sun gear at IBM—was being dismantled, and the layoffs started.

Thats when he turned to the law—not to sue but for a new career. ONeal, like many IT professionals in the midst of the economic downturn in high technology, has decided to move on, leaving his coding days behind and focusing the rest of his working years on a different field. With a degree in patent law from Suffolk University, in Boston, ONeal plans to use his three decades in computing to guide high-tech innovators through the patent process.

A drastic change? Perhaps. Uncommon? Not really. From newly minted computer science graduates who are rethinking their career path in the face of dwindling job offers to midlife IT pros tired of shuffling between jobs in a hurting field, increasing numbers of techies are either contemplating or making the big break. Some choose careers that have an obvious link to IT, such as selling high-tech products; others are setting out on a different path, such as being a lawyer, career counselor or teacher. Either way, say experts, many skills honed in the IT world are useful outside it.

Its no secret that times have been tough—and jobs increasingly scarce—in IT. Research company Meta Group Inc. recently reported that 500,000 IT jobs disappeared last year alone. The study also found that IT employee turnover rates have risen at most companies.

"These higher-than-expected turnover rates, in this context of economic slowdown or recession, are partly explained by an exodus of workers from IT to other areas," said the author of the study, Howard Rubin, an analyst at Meta, in Stamford, Conn. According to the report, 62 percent of those surveyed have considered leaving IT due to the job market.

But where to jump? Carol Covin, author of such books as "Best Computer Jobs in America: Twenty Minutes from Home," offers these possibilities: teaching computer science at the college or graduate level; bioinformatics, which is IT used by biotech and other life sciences companies; patent law; and genome research. These fields take advantage of traditional strengths found in IT workers, including analytical skills, technical orientation and "an interest in puzzling out new things," said Covin, in Bristow, Va.

Mike Sweeny, managing director of talent acquisition at T. Williams Consulting Inc., a headhunting organization in Collegeville, Pa., has seen former hands-on techies find a comfortable new niche as sales engineers, working as liaisons between traditional salespeople and customers to supply the technical pieces of sales pitches. "Of course, this works best for those who have a little bit of a sales personality," Sweeny said. "But, along with product manager, sales engineer can be a really good fit."

On to Plan B

On to Plan B

Some refugees from IT, however, want to get further away from their old careers. "Carrie," a systems analyst for a high-end hardware manufacturer based in the Southwest, said shes gotten "sick and tired" of the stress of quarterly layoffs that have reduced her companys employment roll from 10,000 to fewer than 4,000 in the last four years. (She requested anonymity to protect her job.) "With the way things are going at my company, everybody is thinking about Plan B."

"The guy in the cube next to me is 52 years old, and hes seriously considering going to work at the car dealership down the street from his house," she said. "It sounds crazy, but on the other hand, hes got customer skills, trouble-shooting skills, and hes a great problem solver. It could be a good fit."

Carrie has been working with a life coach to consider her own Plan B. She has several possibilities, including science teacher in a middle school and art therapist for learning-disabled children. On a recent interview at an alternative school, however, she came up against a harsh reality: the prospect of a massive pay cut. "Im willing to take a big drop in salary," she said, "but were talking about going from $111,000 a year to $22,000. If Im really going to do this, Ive got to build up a cushion and change my lifestyle."

Carries life coach, Sharon Teitelbaum, advises IT people considering a career change to first take a long, hard look at their personal financial picture—using any popular financial assessment book or program—to see what size paycheck they really need and what cutbacks theyd be willing to live with to follow their passion.

Teitelbaum herself is a former IT worker. She left database design and systems analysis in 1993, moving into technical training, then strategic planning. Then, during the next two years, while exploring her own career options, she discovered a love for mentoring others. She trained with the International Coaching Federation and, in 1995, hung out her own shingle in Watertown, Mass., and online at She specializes in coaching people who find themselves in the middle of their careers and unfulfilled.

When considering a big career change, Teitelbaum said, besides figuring out what youre really good at, you have to give yourself license to think hard about what youve always longed to do, whether its painting watercolors or learning the flute.

"This is hard for the overworked to do," Teitelbaum said, "but it can pay off. In midlife, people tend to gravitate toward the kind of work theyll be good at, so you should listen to your desires."

And, advised Teitelbaum, take a critical look at the transferable skills youve already developed.

"An IT worker in midcareer is likely to have developed skills like managing multiple projects or cutting to the core of a problem or coming up with a variety of solutions and presenting them in an orderly way. They might be good at thinking on their feet or working with clients," Teitelbaum said.

Certainly not all IT pros who consider making a switch will get out or stay out. Executive search company TMP Worldwide Inc., in New York, recently reported results of a survey that indicated a modest uptick in tech hiring plans. And T. Williams Sweeny said the uptick may persuade some disaffected IT workers to stay or even return to the profession.

"There are still jobs going begging in certain areas of IT," Sweeny said. "And theres no need to burn bridges. I think plenty of people will be coming back to IT positions when the market opens up again."

One person who is not coming back is ONeal, the former IBM employee. His move to law, however, did not occur overnight. It began in 1995, when he was working at Digital Equipment Corp. as a systems developer, and he heard about a patent law training program. He began taking evening courses at Suffolk Law School while, by day, he weathered several job changes—all in IT—that eventually landed him in the Unix group at IBMs Lotus Software division, in Cambridge, Mass. Fortunately, layoffs in his group coincided with his law school graduation. He now awaits the results of his bar and patent exams. Hes confident that his IT-built skills—attention to detail and the ability to interview clients to ascertain their needs and expectations, for instance—will serve him well as a patent attorney.

One thing he knows will be different when the time comes to make the final switch: "I used to have headhunters calling me several times a day. Now Im going to have to chase down the work myself."

Stephanie Wilkinson is a free-lance writer and can be reached at

Rocket Fuel